General Sherman incident

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General Sherman incident
Part of the events leading to the United States expedition to Korea
Date9–24 July 1866[1]
Result Korean victory
 United States Joseon
Commanders and leaders
Captain Page Governor Park Gyu-su
1 schooner,
20-22 [?] passengers and crew
unknown land forces
Casualties and losses
20 killed,{No survivors}
1 schooner sunk
7 killed,
unknown wounded

The General Sherman incident (Korean: 제너럴셔먼호 사건) was the destruction of an American armed merchant marine side-wheel steamer that visited Korea in 1866. It was an important catalyst to the end of Korean isolationism in the 19th century. After passing the Keupsa Gate without permission from the Koreans, the United States merchant ship was attacked and fought over for several days before finally being destroyed in Pyongyang.


In the mid-19th century, the Great Powers were eager to open up new trade in Asia and began consolidating trade in China and southeast Asia. Japan was also opened up to trade after Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Uraga Harbor near Edo (modern Tokyo) on 8 July 1853, and under the threat of force Japan signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. As early as 1832, discussions of opening up Korea to trade were made by the captain of USS Peacock, Edmund Roberts, yet in 1844 a draft by the United States Congress was shelved due to lack of interest.[citation needed]

The first contact between the US and Korea was not hostile. Several Americans who were shipwrecked in Korea in 1855[2] and 1866[3] were treated well and sent to China for repatriation. However, the Joseon dynasty court which ruled Korea was well aware of the displacement of the traditional ruling classes of China as a result of the First and the Second Opium Wars and maintained a strict policy of isolationism, forbidding any of those they ruled to trade with the outside world to avoid a similar fate.[citation needed]


Determined to open Korea for trade, General Sherman (named for William Tecumseh Sherman) came into Korean waters with goods purchased from the British trading firm Meadows and Co., based in Tientsin (present day Tianjin), China. Upon arriving, the crew of General Sherman attempted to meet with Korean officials to begin negotiations for a trade treaty. The steamer reportedly carried a cargo of cotton, tin, and glass, and was heavily armed. Only five of the crew and passengers were non-Asians:the ship's owner, W. B. Preston, an American trader; Robert Jermain Thomas, a Protestant missionary acting as a navigator and interpreter; an Englishman named Hogarth[4]; Captain Page; Chief Mate Wilson. The rest of the crew were 13 Chinese and three Malay sailors;[5]; a Chinese shroff is also listed on board.[6]. They departed Chefoo (present day Yantai), China on 9 August and arrived on the coast of Korea on 16 August.[7] General Sherman, assisted by Chinese junks, entered the Taedong River on Korea's west coast, sailing towards Pyongyang, and stopped at the Keupsa Gate on the border between Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces. Yu Wautai, captain of one of the Chinese junks, had accompanied Rev. Thomas on his previous trip to Korea's Hwanghae province. According to Thomas, Yu had 20 years experience trading with Koreans.[8]

Local officials met Captain Page and communicated well enough to learn the ship was interested in trade. The Koreans refused all trade offers but agreed to provide the crew with food and provisions. Page was told to wait while higher level government officials were consulted. However, General Sherman went further upriver and anchored west of Pyongyang. Due to the previous month's rains and the tides, the depth of the Taedong River was unusually high and this allowed the steamer into Pyongyang.

Park Gyu-su (the governor of Pyongyang) sent his Adjutant-General, Yi Hyon-Ik, to provide the crew with food, but told the captain he should have stayed at the Keupsa Gate. He was again ordered to wait while the Korean ruler was consulted. At the time Korea was ruled by a regent, the Heungseon Daewongun, in the name of his minor son King Gojong. Father Ridel, a French priest who guided the French invasion party into Korea on 10 September 1866 after the General Sherman incident, reported to the Westerners in China that Daewongun, the regent himself, had sent orders that the ship must leave immediately or all aboard would be killed.[9]


There is dispute over what happened next. Apparently, the ship's crew seized Adjutant-General Yi and his two deputies, who were attempting to pursue a small boat launched from General Sherman with six men attempting to reach shore.[7][obsolete source] According to Governor Park's report, another government official, Shin Tae-jung, tried to persuade the crew to release Yi Hyon-ik and his men but failed. Instead, General Sherman moved upstream, firing cannons and eventually anchored at Hwang-gang-jung (House of Yellow River). Governor Park later reported that the ship had fired her guns into the crowd, killing seven and wounding five.[7][obsolete source] Then, five men launched a boat and navigated north of Pyongyang to determine the river's depth. The citizens of Pyongyang gathered on the riverbank, shouting for the release of Yi Hyon-ik. A man in the boat (probably Robert J. Thomas, the only one who spoke Korean) replied they would give the answer if they were allowed inside Pyongyang city.[7][obsolete source] The crowd started throwing stones at the small boat.[7][obsolete source] Korean soldiers shot arrows and guns at the launch, which retreated back to the ship. The Koreans sent a rescue party and managed to free Yi, but his deputies (Yoo Soon-won and Park Chi-young) were killed.[7][obsolete source] The ship eventually turned back and sailed down until she ran aground into Yang-Gak island, an island across from Pyongyang.

Fighting continued for four days, after which the Koreans resorted to fire boats, filled with wood, sulphur and saltpeter. The first two failed to inflict any damage, but the third set General Sherman afire. Unable to stem the flames, the crew jumped into the water.[7][obsolete source]

According to the Korean Official historical record, Gojong sillok[obsolete source], there were two survivors from the initial attack, Robert Thomas and Cho Neung-bong, however, they were beaten to death.[7][obsolete source]

In January 1867 USS Wachusett (under Captain Robert W. Schufeldt) attempted to investigate the demise of General Sherman, but bad weather turned her back. In the spring of 1868 USS Shenandoah (under Captain John C. Febiger) reached the Taedong River's mouth and received an official letter acknowledging the death of all crewmen of General Sherman.[10]

Concern over this incident is often erroneously cited as a reason why the U.S. Navy conducted the 1871 Korea Campaign, which resulted in the death of about 300 Korean soldiers and three Americans, but official records at the time do not support that.[11] Five years later Korea was forced to sign a trade treaty with Japan in a separate incident, and in 1882 finally signed a treaty with the United States promising to abide by international norms regarding the treatment of prisoners. These treaties ended several centuries of isolationism.

Disputed account[edit]

A plaque marking the sinking of General Sherman in Pyongyang

Some Koreans have claimed that the real purpose of General Sherman was to seek treasures buried in the royal tombs near Pyongyang. Onboard the ship was a Chinese inspector of gold and silver, whose presence can only be explained by the fact that General Sherman was planning for burglary of precious metals from a king's tomb near Pyongyang.[12][unreliable source?] The ship did not even possess proper records of the items listed for trade, pointing to an ulterior motive. Another supporting factor of this claim is that Robert Jermain Thomas, the ship's interpreter, asked a Korean undercover officer the whereabouts of a white pagoda, which is usually associated with worship.[13][unreliable source?] However, in China, it was believed that the royal coffins in the tombs of Pyongyang, where more than one dynasty of Korea lay buried, were of solid gold, and after the departure of General Sherman to Korea, it was rumored among Westerners in China that General Sherman's expedition had something to do with these treasures.[14]

The Koreans believed the use of an armed metal-hull gunboat was suspicious in a mission simply for trade. Even among Westerners residing in China, there were concerns regarding General Sherman being heavily armed. It was well known that two months prior to the General Sherman incident, an armed vessel captained by Ernst Oppert, a German, had visited Korea and made the same demand for trade. Trade had been refused, but Oppert and his crewmen had been well treated and returned to China safely.[7][obsolete source][15] Oppert returned to Korea in Emperor, which steamed up the Han River near Seoul on the same day that General Sherman left Chefoo.[16] Oppert's request for trade was denied and he returned to China without incident. Surprise, an American ship, had been shipwrecked in Chulsan, in Pyong-an Province, on 24 June 1866. The crew was not harmed and was sent to China by Governor Park Gyu-su, the same official in charge during the General Sherman incident.[16][7][obsolete source][17]

Beginning in the late 1960s, North Korea's government historians began to claim the attack on General Sherman was planned and led by Kim Hyong-jik,[citation needed] a direct ancestor of North Korean president Kim Il-sung. The claim has no confirmation in historical records but is still being repeated in North Korean publications, including textbooks. In 2006, North Korea issued a postage stamp commemorating the sinking of the merchant vessel.[18]

USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship captured by North Korea in 1968 (and the only U.S. warship still being held in captivity), was formerly moored at what is believed to be the spot where the incident took place. In late 2012, however, the ship was relocated to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sinking of the General Sherman
  2. ^ "America's First Encounter With Korea: Shipwrecked Whalers - OhmyNews International". Retrieved 2018-07-26.
  3. ^ Paullin, Charles Oscar (1910). "The Opening of Korea by Commodore Shufeldt". Political Science Quarterly. 25 (3): 470–499. doi:10.2307/2141171.
  4. ^ "Corea the Hermit Kingdom" p.391. accessed August 24,2018
  5. ^ "Corea the Hermit Kingdom" p.391. reports the Asian crew numbered 19 Chinese and Malayians. accessed August 24,2018
  6. ^ "Corea the Hermit Kingdom" p.391. accessed August 24,2018
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Gojong-sillok" (Vol.3)
  8. ^ Rev. Thomas's letter dated 12 January 1866 published in Missionary Magazine July 1866
  9. ^ North-China Herald & Supreme Court & Consular Gazette. 20 March 1873. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^
  11. ^ Empirical Research on the 1871 U.S. Military Action in Korea by Thomas Duvernay 2012
  12. ^ Yonggu Kim, Diplomatic History
  13. ^ the Memoir of Park Gyu-Su.
  14. ^ Corea, the Hermit Nation by William Elliot Griffis
  15. ^ Ein verschlossenes Land. – Brockhaus, Leipzig 1880
  16. ^ a b U.S. Diplomatic Correspondence, 1870
  17. ^ the Study of Park Gyu-su by Kim Myong-ho 2008
  18. ^ New Stamps Issued Archived 12 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^ USS General Sherman Incident

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]